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What the Star of Our High School Football Team Meant to Me

Remembering Aaron SD Kirk

SD Kirk

P.G. Cuschieri - published on 05/07/14

He inspired me at a time in my life when little else was going my way. But now he’s gone.

I knew Aaron.  

This is what I used to say.

Aaron was one of the only black kids at my all boys and almost all white Catholic high school. He was a senior when I was a freshman. But we were separated by more than four years.

What separated us was nothing shy of a dimension. Aaron was a man among men. He was big, fast, strong and handsome. He may have been smart too. I don’t know. Rumor had it he wasn’t. But four out of five were pretty damn good in my world. After all, I was one of the smallest in the school. Slow. Weak. And ugly. But at least I knew that much.  

Aaron was the star running back on our school’s football team. We were perennial powers. Best in the Catholic league. And Aaron, in his senior year, was going to lead us to the State football championship. And that was one of the most important things in the world to me. Even though I didn’t play football. Or know anyone who did.  

I’m thirteen years old. My mother combs my hair. I have not begun to be a man yet. My grades are substandard at best. But there I am at my first high school assembly, cheering like a seventh grade girl at a concert.

My eyes are locked on Aaron. He sits on the floor with the other men. Men who I’ve watched from afar, parking their jalopies with pride on the school lot reserved for upperclassmen. They wear their uniforms to school. How lucky. Home blues, white numbers with red outlines. The school’s logo on the shoulder. Their names on the back. And the letter “C” patched into Aaron’s front.

“What’s the ‘C’ for?” I ask someone.

“Captain, dork.”  

Our principle, a Basilian Priest, steps up to the podium and the band stops playing. We begin to pray. About what, I don’t know. About beating our Catholic cross-town all boys, almost all white rivals? About being grateful to go to an elite Catholic high school? I have no idea.

But as he prays, I notice he’s wearing a pin too. I look closer. It’s a picture of Aaron. Then I realize, we’re praying a thanksgiving prayer for Aaron. We are so lucky to have him. The priest finishes, clears his throat and we all shut up as he introduces the coach.  Then we explode again.  

The coach at least looks like he’s ready. He stands there and soaks up the adulation thrown to his team. He holds a clipboard in his hand and his face has a villainous smile as if he knows the game’s outcome. But I know why he’s really smiling. He knows he’s got Aaron. And Aaron can make anybody a coaching genius.  

The first game is under the lights. My mother and father, who pretend to understand the weight of importance this football game bears to me, drop me off. I am by myself. I’m going to meet my friends there. But I don’t have many friends to meet.  

And its much too crowded to find them anyway. So I stand alone near the sideline. I look at the cheerleaders. They’re from our sister school. It’s Catholic all girls and almost all white too. And its miles from us. But the girls are beautiful. Women really. And it’s hard to believe that we’re almost the same age.

I look for Aaron. He’s not hard to find. He’s the most natural looking athlete. His uniform custom fit, he walks gracefully in his cleats and stretches like a ballerina in pads. And I can’t wait to watch him run.

Aaron doesn’t run, actually. He explodes. His legs are pistons. His shoulders, anvils. He’s triple jointed and he has a gazelle’s speed. He runs away from defenders as easily as he runs through them. He punishes the defense one play, mocks it the next.

And deep inside I want to be Aaron. I want to possess that kind of speed and power so I can abuse it. I want those cheerleaders to know my name. I want the Basilian priest principle to wear my pin. And I want my mom and dad to come to a game and see the son they created was not done so in vain. I want all to know that there is a purpose in my existence. And they will know that purpose when I stand in the end zone humbly after a score and hand the referee the football.

But somehow I know that will never happen. I’m small and insignificant and probably meant to be so.  

Pretty soon, the first semester is over and it’s official: I’m a solidly mediocre student. I got a “B” in religion though and my mom is harboring thoughts of my pending sainthood. My circle of friends is getting smaller. They’re becoming interested in other things. Interested in girls. Interested in beer. Interested in growing up.

But we’re four games into the season and undefeated. So life is good for me.

The school halls are filled with pictures of students that went on and did something with their lives. There are some politicians. Some priests. Some scholars. But the bulk of the hallway space is reserved for athletes. The pictures are old, black and white. They go back, too. Classes of forty-something and fifty-something.

As I look at them, I wonder if they’re going to tear everything down and build a shrine when Aaron graduates.    

A special day comes. I stay late after school for some reason and I walk out to the football field and watch the team practice. They don’t do much. A lot of formations and drills. The coaches do their bit. And I sit there thinking how special it is to stay after school.

My mother and father had bought me a football jersey for Christmas the previous year. It had my name stitched into the back. I kept it in my locker for just such an occasion. So I’m wearing my football jersey, watching the team practice. I’m by myself and think that’s pretty cool. I get a few looks from a few different people wondering what the heck I’m hanging around for. And that makes me think I’m even cooler.

But then something happens. Something that’s the coolest of all. Aaron is walking towards me. He’s cutting out of practice early and he’s walking right towards me. Our eyes meet, sending me ear to ear in a smile. He approaches, bends, speaks.

“Y
ou ain’ no football player.”  

He kind of smiles and walks away. And I look around to see if anyone saw.    

We win the state championship that year. The game is played in a real stadium. I go to the game by myself and sit next to a pair of old guys that are really into high school football. I listen to them speak. They know of all the guys on the football team.

Aaron, they say, is the best. Perhaps the best in the country. He’s going to a big time program. No college with a Northern, Eastern, Southern, or Western prefix. He’s going to a big school. The kind that play nationally televised games. The kind that produces Heisman Trophy winners. The kind that would never even accept my application. Aaron’s going there, and he is going to be a star. Everybody knows it.  

And I listen to these two schmucks talk about Aaron and I get a little sad. Because Aaron’s no secret. He has other admirers. Suddenly it doesn’t feel special to like him. But then Aaron rips off a long touchdown run and I burst. It was me he had talked to. Not these two old guys that don’t know anything about nothing.  

Then Aaron goes on to his big time college, and I am left behind. The football team is not as good without him. And I’m becoming less interested.

But Aaron, they say, is having a hard time in college. He’s too small. Injury prone. Done growing. I disagree. Aaron’s young I say. He has three more years. Just wait and see. And I look for his name in the paper. But I can’t find it. On one fall Saturday, when I should be out playing or doing something with my young life I decide to watch Aaron’s team play on television. Aaron’s team buries their opponent. But he doesn’t play.

Finally, at the end of the game, a camera pans the victorious sideline of Aaron’s team. Players yuck it up in front of the camera, sending greetings to their mothers, girlfriends, whoever. And in the background, on the bench sits Aaron. A different number on his jersey. A pensive look on his face. And I begin to get sad.

Years go by and it’s my turn to graduate. I’m not really interested in football anymore. I’m interested in other things: I’m interested in girls. I’m interested in parties. I’m interested in sneaking around my parents. My grades are still crummy. I’ll graduate near the bottom of my class. But I don’t care. I have a few friends and they don’t care either. I comb my own hair now.

I’m a man when I read about Aaron for the last time. And I’m happy. I’m a little smarter. A little bigger. I think I’m handsome. And I am reminded how I miss my boyhood. How I struggled to get it back. To place aside all my bitterness. My disappointments. My insecurity.

And I wonder what Aaron’s last day may have been like. After he slept in. Because he had to.

He worked the midnight shift. The article says he had a little girl. And a fiancée. But they are left behind. There are no suspects in the shooting. His picture accompanies the article. He’s still handsome. Athletic looking.  

I often wonder why God puts people into our lives. Some seem to come to heal us. Others to harm. And maybe some to just simply nudge us along. I think this is why maybe Aaron came. To make me care about something in a time of my life when I had nothing to care about. And though I say I knew Aaron, I really didn’t. But maybe someday I can thank him.

You ain’ no football player.”

He made it sound like a compliment.

Born in Detroit, P.G. Cuschieri is a writer who lives and works in Los Angeles. He is a grateful brother, uncle, friend and a proud Roman Catholic. He can be found on twitter @pgcuschieri.

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